Frozen River: Oscar's 2009 Cinderella Story

Courtney Hunt was sitting in her house in Columbia County outside of New York City watching the Oscar nominations. She was wishing and hoping, yet not expecting, that her debut film Frozen River, which she wrote, directed and shepherded along for the better part of a decade, would get noticed in some small way.  

When lead actress Melissa Leo got a nomination for her role as Ray Eddy, a mother desperate to raise enough cash to buy a double wide trailer for her kids for Christmas, Hunt and husband (and producer) Don Harwood ran out of the room in a frenzy. It took them a few seconds to realize that another nomination could come.  Hunt returned to her TV just in time to hear her name being read for best original screenplay. As she said later, she "sank to my knees." Hunt described the experience as "overwhelming, yet humbling."

Each year the Oscars have one Cinderella story, and this year Frozen River got the invitation to the ball.

The film’s story dates back to before 9-11 when Hunt, having left the stability of a law career for the instability of filmmaking, heard stories of smugglers crossing the St. Lawrence River from Canada with cigarettes.  Post 9-11, when tightened border rules made migration more and more difficult, the stories of smuggling shifted to human cargo. One day, while writing in her journal, Hunt inscribed a monologue as Ray’s voice seemed to pour out to her. Thinking it was some type of poem, she showed it to a friend, and the friend insisted it was a short film.  After finishing the script she was able to get it to Melissa Leo at a local film festival, as well to Misty Upham, the native American actress who plays Ray's smuggling partner Lila.  The short won an award at the New York Film Festival.

But not surprisingly, even after the success, producers did not line up to finance a feature film -- which Hunt felt the material deserved -- of two poor women struggling to make ends meet in the depths of winter. So Hunt got creative and raised the money from sources completely outside the film business.  She made the film for an unbelievable small amount of money -- approximately $500,000 -- yet it is so well done that you can never tell it was made on the cheap.     

The reception for Frozen River has been remarkable in Hollywood terms.  It flies in the face of conversations about how people only want "light" fare, or don't want to see films about women -- and this one is also written by a woman and directed by that same woman.  Keep in mind, Frozen River is an intense, stark movie where everyone is one step from poverty and no one is wearing a touch of makeup.  The film is also eerily reflective of our current economic times, with audiences reacting differently to the issues of poverty and desperation than they had even six months ago.  Hunt reports that the viewers “used to talk about the smuggling.  Now, it’s mostly the [economic] distress … as the situation described in the movie becomes less and less unusual.”

Generally, success in Hollywood is defined by huge box office dollars, but this film's triumph is different because it was never expected to compete in the same way.  From its debut at the 2008 Sundance film festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize, to the Independent Spirit Award nominations to the Oscar nominations, the track record of Frozen River proves that good content can rise to the top. 

The film is so small that it could have easily disappeared -- even after winning at Sundance.  But it didn't. It’s distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, opened the film in August in a handful of cities and nurtured it throughout the awards season so it couldn't disappear.  It never had a wide release and never made it to more than 100 screens at a time.  The film also greatly benefited from its positive reception in the blogosphere.  In particular women bloggers and writers beat the drum of Frozen River when it threatened to slip off the year-end radar screens of the (mostly male) Oscar prognosticators. 

Hunt's remarkable year is about to come to an end.  The film is now out on DVD and has been getting positive reception in Spain and France and elsewhere around the world.  As awards season culminates next week with the Independent Spirit Awards (where Frozen River has multiple nominations, including one for best director) and the Oscars, Hunt is ready to get down to business and land her next film.  This time it's going to be different.  She has multiple directing offers where she doesn't have to raise a cent of production money, and you can bet the budgets of those potential films are all well over $500,000.

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